Too many Valentines? Like the saint himself!

In the last post we explored how the relics of 5 star internationally renowned saint, St Valentine, (who was, probably, a 3rd century Roman) somehow, – improbably but rather wonderfully ended up by the 19th century  in the church of the Carmelite White Friars, right here in Dublin.  It’s a remarkable and heart warming story.

S Valentine wi

But we never really answered the other, second part of the question we posed ourselves last time out:  Who exactly was Saint Valentine?  Where did he live,  and die?  And what did he do to make himself so famous, and well, so romantic?

Even a cursory glance at the dreaded Wikipedia, that first resort of all lazy researchers,  tells us Valentine is a saint venerated in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox traditions.  So far, so good.


mosaic of Valentine, in the eastern, Byzantine tradition.

But wait.  Although approved for veneration in the Latin Church, and wildly popular for many centuries, he is not currently part of the Catholic Calendar of Saints.  What’s that?  -The “calendar” is effectively the officially documented list of saints who are sanctioned, verified, and approved by the Vatican.   They revise it every few decades, (most recently in 1969) and sometimes saints are added or removed, according to the state of current scholarship, as more evidence comes to light, or conversely, as other evidence is discredited.

What does the list do?  It contains the main approved saints, along with the calendar of their feast days. In other words it tell you who is “really” a saint.  This is, after all one of the prerogatives of the Holy Roman Church.

Why have you lapsed into Catechism-style Q&A mode?  –I’m sorry, it must be the subject matter, and general air of power and authority surrounding the church.   Could you cut it out please?  -Yes, sorry. Straight away.

Anyway, this odd reticence by the Holy See to include Valentine on its A-List, so to speak, is not because “they don’t like him”.  It’s not even because they “don’t believe in him”  It is purely and simply because so little is known. Also, it is definitely not because there are no early Christian martyrs of that name.  On the contrary.  It’s because there are too many.

Two would be bad enough.  But believe it or not, there seems to have been up to three holy persons of that name.  They were:  A- a priest in Rome; B- a martyr from North Africa; and C- a bishop from Terni (in Umbria, central Italy).  To further confuse the picture, (and believe me, it does) aspects, stories and legends from all three figures may have been confused, retold and conflating into one figure.  This can form a confusing picture.   The more one researches, the more the head spins.


Was for example, “Valentine the presbyter” the same Valentine who the 5th century Pope Gelasius I approved for worship?  (A ‘presbyter” by the way,  is a preacher or Bishop-like leader in the early church.)   Or were these two different figures?  Because he, or one of them may, (or may not) have been buried on the Via Flamina just outside Rome.  So that’s one contender.

Confused?  It gets worse.  There’s a Basilica San Valentino in Terni, where also they claim Valentine as their own.  Oh and Glasgow too, yes, in Scotland,  also claims to have Valentine’s bones.  And so do we of course, here in Dublin.  Ah yes,  but which Valentine, eh?

Valentine 2 anddisciples oversees basilica, 14C French MSDepiction of Saint Valentine (one of them) from a 14th century French MS.  This is the Valentine who built a basilica at Terni, which appears here in the picture during its construction.

Let’s roll back a little.   First of all, very inconveniently, neither of the two Italian Valentines appear in the first list of Roman Christian Martyrs, which was first compiled during late-ish Imperial times, in AD 354.

However, before we get discouraged and start thinking Dublin has been fobbed off with some dubious, second-rate variety of saint, it’s worth noting that as early as 496, Valentine was already a popular figure for early Christian devotion in Italy and elsewhere.  This is well attested. He was already very popular in fact by the early 5th century and widely venerated.   So he has form and pedigree there, and legions of fans around the world.  And he has had all this for a very very long time. (Did you know by the way, he is the patron saint of epileptics, as well as lovers?)


St Valentine, healing epileptics, and rebuking worshipers of false gods. 

We know that Valentine was already a popular figure , because of a document.  Due to popular demands and devotion,  AD Pope Gelasius I honoured him in the year 496 on a special list of less-known-about saints, and established his feast day.  On of course- February 14th.

At this same time, the Pope put him on this list of saints who were extremely popular, but whose lives frankly, were not terribly well documented.  The Pope dutifully acknowledged this hazy provenance with the beautifully tactful phrase, describing these saints:  “…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God” .

saint and Pope Gelasius i

Pope Gelasius I, now St Pope Gelasius, who approved somebody named Valentine for worship.    A tactful sort of Pope.

Today of course, for all this air of mystery, Valentine is firmly established with a highly distinctive, unique feast day, when cards, chocolates and flowers are sent and given in vast quantities.   So, our next and final question is: Why?

How did Valentine acquire this famous association with romance? 

Legend records Valentine (the Presbyter) died a martyr’s death by execution, during pogroms against Christians in the reign of Emperor Claudius II (also called Claudius Gothica)  Valentine had risked his life to perform Christian marriages for couples who’d come to him.  That of course is romantic.  Oh yes.

The saint was captured and sentenced to execution.   He spent some time in prison,  awaiting this beastly fate.  Look here he is below, in prison, with his fellow captives.  Comforting the fellow Christians, probably converting a few pagans too.


Accounts say while in prison, he also, miraculously,  restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailor.   He sent this daughter a note, apparently signed “from your Valentine”.  This then, was the world’s very first Valentine’s card.

Although there’s no suggestion that Valentine and the jailor’s daughter were in lurve,  (sorry, I mean in love)   the church of S. Valentine in Terni,  now a Mecca for love-strickened couples, is as one might expect, an uncritical and enthusiastic proponent of his romantic credentials.  (Have a look at their website for heaven sake)

The Terni church on its website and associated literature says Valentine was executed on February 14th then firmly state  that “he has been celebrated by lovers, from the earliest time”    Earliest times, by lover?  Really?   Finding independent proof of this is difficult.  But then, as always in such matters, separating truth from later embellishment is vexed.

Some scholars- the old sticks in the mud-  have theorised that the real reason Valentine is associated with love is purely because his Day fell at the same time of the year as the old Roman (possibly even pre-Roman) Spring fertility festival of Lupercalia.


“Lupercalia ” by Domenico Beccafumi

Originally associated with the She-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, this bacchanalian extravaganza saw the well-born youths of ancient Rome running naked around the streets whipping people. Such scourging was meant to be a cure for current barrenness, and a protection against future infertility.   In general the whole thing sounds like quite a lot of fun really.

Anyway, since Valentine’s Day fell conveniently around the same date, the same historians surmise it was used by the church to displace the bawdy old pagan festival of fertility,  yes replacing the earthy pagan notions of sex and fertility,  with more seemly Christian ideas of love.   In fairness, as readers will be well aware, this wouldn’t have been the first time the church appropriated an older pagan festival for its own ends.  Many if not most Christian festivals were built on the back of (and to displace) an older pagan event.

Others have gone further.  They want to debunk Valentine’s links to romance entirely.  One America scholar, who I found in earlier research but who name now escapes me, (profuse apologies to him, and you) has argued there was no prior association between Saint Valentine and Love for the entire first thousand years of the cult Valentine.  A thousand years!

Not, in fact, up until fourteenth century England.  He claims this link was invented only then (11 hundred years after Valentine remember) by poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle.


Geoffrey Chaucer, poet.

According to this theory, the link it was fabricated purely to illustrate medieval notions of courtly love.  In fact courtly love itself, even romantic love as whole some say, is sometimes thought to be a cultural construct, invented by poets and troubadours of the medieval era for the courts of Western France and Plantagenet England.  Love as a poetic cult, and an innovation. So there you go.  I don’t entirely buy this line myself, any more than I buy the idea that everyone considered mountains ugly until the Romantic poets and painters came along, and invented the idea of the sublime.  But it’s interesting food for thought nonetheless.


Whatever the truth, to my way of thinking, the most interesting thing about Saint Valentine is not his air of enigma, nor the countless tons of cards, flowers and chocolates he’s invoked to sell each year, but the fact that he’s ended up in Dublin of all places, in the wonderful church of White Friars.

In strict historical terms, Valentine may remain a slightly hazy figure. Yet his name has commanded popular devotion for over 17 hundred years, and been associated with love for very least seven hundred.   Even if old Chaucer did fabricate the link to love, well there are worse authors, since the author of the Knight’s Tale was not exactly a shabby poet.    All our myths must start somewhere.

In any case, love is the most apt, generous attribute for any saint, real or later attached.  What possible better resting place then, for this elusive saint, than the warm and generous sanctuary, the church-friary of the Carmelite White Friars?


Adapted from my as yet unpublished book, Hidden Dublin.    Book in turn originating in my Hidden Dublin articles, published 2003-2006 in Totally Dublin magazine.

Arran Henderson is a art historian and critic, who specializes in interpreting art, buildings and architectural details as a way of reading history.  Apart from his writing, articles and two blogs he also offers leads Dublin walking tours under the banner Dublin Decoded, to both private and to public (open) groups.    There are around 12-16 public tours a year.  The best (almost only) way to receive notification of tours,  is through the free monthly mailing list.   private tours can be booked any time.  (Just send an email with date, numbers and interests)   Public Tours resume in March and will run, 1-3 times each month, until next November (2016) The subscribe button to that newsletter is here.

Thank you for reading.  Feel free to leave to comment below. It’s always great to hear from guests and readers.   See you again soon!




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